Review by Sean Boelman
After their 2017 film Good Time gained an almost instant cult following, audiences have been waiting for the follow-up of writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems. This highly stylized effort doesn’t have the same level of polish, but it is nonetheless an intense and well-acted thriller.
Both of the Safdies’ recent movies are characterized by their grim tone addressing some of the darkest aspects of humanity. To call their films bleak would be an understatement, as both movies’ protagonists are extremely flawed and collapse under the pressure placed upon them by society. In this way, the audience ends up having an almost love-hate relationship with the characters, because even though they seemingly keep making the wrong decisions, there is a human quality to them that endears them to the viewer.
That said, despite the sometimes overwhelming dreary nature of the films’ plots, both Good Time and Uncut Gems approach their stories with a sense of dark humor. This is particularly the case with Uncut Gems, as the movie was designed to lean into star Adam Sandler’s comedic sensibilities, but the kind of nervous laughter that results from the film making the viewer uncomfortable is common in both.
Likely the clearest link between the two movies is the thematic thread that ties them together. Both Good Time and Uncut Gems deal with the issues of addiction and masculinity. In their films, the Safdies explore the character’s addiction to success. Whereas Uncut Gems more explicitly features a character trying to win, Good Time is more subtle in this regard as Robert Pattinson’s character tries to beat the odds that are stacked against him.
Perhaps the most effective part of the Safdies’ movies is the extreme amount of anxiety that they cause. Good Time starts at a ten and stays there for the entirety of its hour-and-forty-minute runtime, but Uncut Gems builds that tension more slowly over its two-plus hours. Both films are mostly effective, though Uncut Gems only truly finds its footing in the last forty-five minutes, which are riveting.
The Safdies also use their sound design in a very deliberate way, but this also comes at the expense of other aspects of the movie. In Uncut Gems, the sound mixing is a bit too aggressive, as the score frequently becomes overpowering. While this does heighten the sense of unease felt by the viewer, it also makes the dialogue difficult to hear at times.
That said, the blaring music in the film is very complex and does an excellent job of setting the tone. Daniel Lopatin (also known as Oneohtrix Point Never) provides the score for both movies, and the synth-heavy sounds work quite well. Uncut Gems is unique in the fact that diegetic music also plays a huge role in the film, as The Weeknd has a cameo as himself in part of the movie.
Additionally, both of the Safdies’ films have proven to be powerful starring vehicles for their leading actors. Good Time was written with Pattinson in mind, and Sandler was the filmmakers’ first choice to play the lead in Uncut Gems. Both performances were among the best of their respective years due to a combination of the roles being custom-tailored for their performer and the Safdies’ ability to get an excellent performance out of the lead.
Also interesting is the Safdies’ use of the supporting cast. Although both movies are very much focused on the lead actor, they also feature some interesting turns from other players. Good Time features a fascinating albeit flawed performance from filmmaker Benny Safdie himself, and one of the most compelling aspects of Uncut Gems is a performance from basketball player Kevin Garnett as himself.
Even though Uncut Gems is certainly messier than Good Time, it still features many of the aspects that fans of their last film would have identified. The Safdies haven’t quite earned the title of the modern auteur yet, but their next outing may prove them to be deserving.
Uncut Gems is now playing in theaters.